IN: Reviews

A Musical Portrait of Emily Dickinson



On June 2nd, Artistic Director and collaborative pianist Beverly Soll, with soprano Stephanie Mann, mezzo-soprano Roselin Osser, and tenor Leslie Tay, treated their audience to a genteel afternoon of song from various composers set to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, presenting a portrait of her life and sensibilities in narrated musical essay as a benefit concert for the Boston Singers’ Resource. This concert of poetry, voice and music was held in the Danvers home of John Archer. He graciously opened his beautiful home for this event, a structure which defines space as a narrative of history and meaning– with its wonderful architectural aggregation of vast rooms, tiers of soaring ceilings, and thresholds for loved and salvaged objects. It was certainly part of the draw, for those who had read the New York Times article about the house here. The musicians performed in an airy, lofty room holding approximately 80 people, on a warm and sunny day, with glass doors behind them leading out to a garden of pink rhododendrons which befitted the personality of the poet.

Narrative, spoken by the singers, was woven in between the songs to give a biographical illustration of Dickinson’s life, and made for a satisfying event. The recital was presented in four parts, without intermission, in which the audience was asked to withhold applause until the end; “Part I: Introducing Miss Emily”; “Part 2: The World Outside Miss Emily’s Window”; “Part 3: Loss and Visions of Eternity”; and “Part 4: The End Approaches.” The production began with a written, verbal introduction, leading into a song, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Roselin Osser. A gorgeous, mellifluous mezzo, Osser is vocally well-rounded and capable of a wide range of timbres. This first song was a setting by Lee Hoiby not of a poem, but of Miss Dickinson’s poetic letter of correspondence to her prospective mentor, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, as answer to his inquiry into her home life.

You ask of my companions. Hills sir, and the sundown, and a dog as large as myself that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell, and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano. I have a brother and a sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse every morning, whom they call their ‘Father.’ But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft.

Thus, the tone was set, drawing the audience into the journey of a small and gentle Victorian life which became posthumously declared alongside Walt Whitman as one of the two timeless and most profound voices of 19th-century American poetry.

Dickinson’s poems were all brief; some epigrammatic gems, some profound and moving, others playful, coy or joking. They lend themselves to self-contained song, and the intermittent spoken essays helped to provide a moment of emotional repose in-between the works, which offered a wide range of musical styles. All three of the singers had an excellent dramatic ability, conveying their words, both spoken and sung, with vivid expression and engaging intensity. There were moments, however, where the text might have been better served by singing actors than by operatically trained voices. A little over-sung in places, sometimes text succumbed to tone production where a lighter touch might have offered more subtlety.

Beverly Soll was nuanced and sensitive in her collaborative role as the pianist. Based upon a conversation with one of the singers, it is understood that Soll compiled the narrative, and that she and the three singers worked together in selecting the music. It is commendable that although the song settings were selected from a large list of composers (including Lee Hoiby, Aaron Copland, Isadore Freed, Richard Hageman, Robert Baksa, Richard Hundley, John Duke, Robert Ward, Ernst Bacon and Jake Heggie), each musical selection and style flowed well into the next to create a cohesive program. In her introduction, Soll spoke of her special regard for Art Song being rooted in how voice and piano are unsurpassedly intertwined, and it was clear to the listener that this recital was an equal and group effort in which every participant was fully committed in their deeply loving approach to the material.

Unfortunately, this resulted in a concert that didn’t include any women composers. With a range of 20 different songs, by 10 different composers, it really does seem odd not to have at least one composition by a woman on the program. Composers Gloria Coates and Lori Laitman have written some fine Dickinson settings, for instance.  Apart from that, the selections included some little-known works and a wide range of styles, all given excellent performances.

The focus was on Dickinson and her brilliant poetry, and rightly so, but it would have been helpful to provide some program notes about the little-known composers. The blank second page of the program would have been a good place for brief composer bios.  For instance, Richard Hageman’s setting of “Charity” (1921) suggested possibly the style of Victor Herbert.  Looking up Hageman (1881-1966) it was interesting to learn that he conducted at the Met Opera for many years, so he had ample opportunity to be steeped in Herbert’s style.

Robert Baksa’s (b. 1938) setting of “I’m Nobody” (from a set composed in the mid-1960s) was playful, and brightly modern. “Two Butterflies Went Out at Noon,” also by Baksa, offered a meandering piano melody illustrating the butterfly motion, supporting the simple, spare voice line.

In Robert Ward’s (1917-2013) “Vanished,” death is contemplated by the interweaving of the pensive melodic lines, voice and piano. It was a powerful, understated approach. Knowing Ward only from his opera “The Crucible,” it was fortunate to have the chance to hear this song.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was represented by six varied pieces. The familiar “Why do they shut me out of heaven” and “Going to Heaven” were both presented with vigor and intense presence. “Sleep is supposed to be” was, in contrast, subdued, with the voice ending alone, evocatively.  Two Ernst Bacon settings were both simple and effective, with “It’s all I have to bring today” closing the program.

In general, it ought to be mentioned that Dickinson scholarship over the last decade has been evolving in exciting ways, which this program was unable to fully cover. In Alfred Habegger’s 2001 biography My wars are laid away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, he includes information that when Dickinson’s original sources were painstakingly reassembled and studied in the context of chronology, it was found that the peak of her production was between 1861 and 1865. There is a tendency to perceive Dickinson, unlike Alcott and Whitman, as completely sheltered from the Civil War, but this war, which was historically, inescapably significant to every American citizen who lived through it; was the first war in the United States to be covered by photographers, whose work was copied by illustrators and distributed through newspapers and magazines, including Harper’s Weekly, to virtually every household in America. The Dickinson household received those publications. For example, consider the images portrayed in the recent Daniel Day Lewis film, Lincoln. Dickinson had access to those photos; photos that our modern day media is forbidden to show us (when covering our modern-day wars). Death was all around her while relatives and acquaintances were fighting on the distant battle field (and prior to that time, in the form of an epidemic of tuberculosis in Amherst). As a woman of thought, she may not have written politically, but it is arguable that certainly her creative life would have been catalyzed by these outside forces that were not beyond her reading access or intellectual comprehension. These are relatively new insights into her psyche worth exploring.

A Musical Portrait of Emily Dickinson as a recital is understandably limited by available compositional settings from composers whose perceptions are limited by what they don’t know, and also by voice type, performance comfort, and program context; but for the above reasons, a suggestion for future performances would be to compose a Civil War chapter, even if it is just a narration segment, with poems dated and thought to be connected directly with that time rather than presented simply as abstract musings on the subject of mortality. As it was presented, however, this program was still beautifully structured and really a complete delight.

A repeat performance is planned to be held (in a different venue) in September, so watch the Boston Singer’s Resource page here.

Authors’ Note: Janine Wanée, who has an interest in Dickinson scholarship, asked to review the concert, but on the morning of June 2nd, was copied on an email by Liane Curtis asking Publisher Lee Eiseman to review the same concert. When it was discovered they lived nearby, Janine cancelled her Zipcar and caught a ride with Liane and they agreed to collaborate on the following review. Insights into the composers, musical style, and singing were provided by Curtis. Considerations regarding modern Dickinson scholarship and textual delivery were provided by Wanée. A sentence poetically describing the architecture of the Archer home was written by Curtis’s friend, architect Laura Catanzaro, who rode along with them.

Janine Wanée holds a B.Mus. degree from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc..

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